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Margaret Moore and Fort Belvoir Elementary School

By Katherine C. Cowan

Finding the “new normal” is a way of life for kids and families at Fort Belvoir Elementary School in Fairfax County, Virginia. Of course, according to Margaret Moore, school psychologist at Fort Belvoir, “That's the nature of life in the military. There is constant movement and change.” And, since 9/11, a constant sense of uncertainty and risk.

Less than 15 miles from the Pentagon, the September 11 attacks were very close to home for the Fort Belvoir community. Physical proximity was compounded by emotional proximity both because a number of students and staff had family working at the Pentagon and because of the frontline nature of the inevitable military response. As at many schools in the DC metro area, Fort Belvoir staff found themselves that Tuesday pivoting from a normal school morning of welcoming students and beginning lessons to crisis management that included coordinating a mass exodus of students. Parents rushed to pick up their children from school just as Congress and the White House were evacuating amidst serious concerns that another plane was headed toward the city. Moore recalls that “anxiety was extremely high over whether or not Fort Belvoir could be at risk as well.”

Uncertainty about the fate of loved ones at the Pentagon (sadly, some of whom were killed) and knowledge that some units would be activated to defend the country added to the intense process of calming fears and ensuring that students were connected to the right family member or authorized adult. In almost time-stopped motion, everyone showed up at the school for their children by 10:30 a.m. and most everyone was gone by early afternoon. Many staff left as well out of concern for family members, but the administrative and mental health staff stayed on to begin planning for the next day. Thus began what few could have predicted would be the school's decade-long (so far) role at the heart of the 9/11 legacy and the longest war in American history.

With between 1,200 and 1,500 students, Fort Belvoir is the largest elementary school in the Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) system and one of the few public schools in the country operating on a military base. Most base schools are part of the Department of Defense Education Agency (DoDEA), which operates schools around the world. Additionally, Fort Belvoir is one of the only U.S. bases serving multiple branches of the military (Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard). Ninety-eight percent of the students at the K–6 school are in families with active duty military parents. Most have parents who have been, are, or will be deployed to a war zone.

“The risks of terrorism and war are very real to these children,” says Moore. “But there is also a culture of resilience in the military and a strong sense of purpose and community. These are tremendous assets.”

The coexistence of risk and resilience is a common theme in the military experience. Both were evident Wednesday morning, September 12. Fort Belvoir opened for a full day of school and all but one student of a single parent soldier who was killed at the Pentagon showed up. Students were anxious, but parents had done a good job of talking with their children and reinforcing the idea that “We are military; we will take care of this and keep you safe,” says Moore. (Adult reassurance like this was a lead theme in the guidelines for helping children cope released by NASP on 9/11.) The school also had the benefit of access to the mental health team at the nearby DeWitt Army Hospital, who sent counselors to help the school mental health team support students, staff, and families. Moore recognized that they benefited greatly from a critical factor in effective school–community collaboration: familiarity. “A big advantage we had with the DeWitt counselors is that they knew the kids and their families. They understood the culture and the school.”

Ten years later, the military provides an array of support resources for families and students that teachers and other staff integrate into and/or supplement with those provided by the school. An example is Military OneSource, a program that provides academic and mental health supports to students and families, such as stress management, transition counseling, mentoring, and the capability for students to call for homework help over the phone. Services like this have been strengthened or, in many cases, created since 9/11 because of the significant and ongoing stress on military families and children resulting from extended and multiple deployments. Indeed, the military has made long-needed strides since 9/11 in acknowledging and taking responsibility for addressing the effects of war, not just on soldiers, but on their families.

Another change since the attacks, according to Moore, is the more proactive nature of parents seeking out help for their children. “Today, parents come to the school saying, 'Who is here for my kids? Someone needs to see me right now because my child needs help',” she says. “Before 9/11, that would not have been true.” In part because of the military's evolution in attitude and the changing public dialogue around crisis and mental health, parents are more open about the issues their children may be dealing with and have come to expect the school to be able to help.

And the issues can be pervasive. Anxiety is a constant force running through the student body. “You can feel it in the air sometimes,” observes Moore. “The students sometimes seem 'itchy', nonattentive, and not really tracking with you. And then you find out that they heard that someone's parent got killed.” She notes that students can act as dominos in such circumstances, one child leading to the next in terms of identifying distressed children.

Moore and her colleagues know that in the back of the students' minds is a little part of them that worries that they or someone they know are going to get some bad news. It is a reality-based worry, not just because parents do get injured or killed sometimes but also because the experience of war is just a click away. Technology, like Skype, enables children to see and feel closer to their deployed parent, but it also puts them there virtually in the war zone. “Children can be on Skype and can see their deployed parent in a tent or outside and in the background they hear an explosion or gunfire. We have brought the war home into our kids' lives.”

Added to the risks of combat is instability back home. There is the constant mobility; most students at Fort Belvoir have lived in four to five locations. Many soldiers are single parents, so their children are left with a caregiver who may be a relative but also may be someone assigned by the military or family services. In many respects, these children are living the foster child experience. It is not uncommon for students to show signs of feeling displaced, disconnected, or sad, says Moore. They come to me and say, “I miss my mom. I don't have my backpack. I miss my dog.” Sometimes she continues, “They just want to sleep in their own bed.”

And the one thing that should relieve the anxiety—a parent returning home from a tour of duty—often generates its own brand of stress. More soldiers are coming home injured, mentally affected, or just different from when they left. Multiple deployments can add to this new normal as each time the parent comes back, they can come back a little edgier, anxious, angry, or distant. And for some children, particularly in elementary school, long and multiple deployments mean that they are, in essence, meeting their returning parent for the first time.

What does all this mean for Moore and the rest of the staff working to help their students feel secure and able to learn? Moore sees herself as a much better and open listener than she was before 9/11. “We have to have our radar up all the time. Otherwise we miss the kids who are trying to tell us something.”

Intentional openness and engagement are hallmarks of the prevention and intervention approaches at Fort Belvoir. A comprehensive mentoring program links as many students as possible to a staff member who sticks with that student the whole time they are enrolled. Mentors meet with their student once a week just to hangout (have lunch or play cards) and check in. “It's a great way to find out what's going on out there,” says Moore. They do individual counseling and run ongoing support groups based on issues such as stress management, deployment, and making friends.

Staff members also have to be tuned into the culture of the kids. Patriotism runs deep and strong, even in young children, and can sometimes teeter on negativity toward other cultures. Celebrating the death of Bin Laden was important to the children and the conversation about death and killing has a different prism than perhaps in the typical elementary school. A student drawing pictures of people with guns shooting others is more likely a reflection of context than a plan to harm to someone.

Engaging families is important as well. Initiatives such as the Military Family of the Month program help put a face on a student's family with interviews on the school television station and photos posted on the bulletin board. The school also hosts a Parent Resource Center to connect families with support services and programs. Academic support programs include after-school programs such as Operation Hero (links adult tutor/mentors to students) and reading and math enrichment programs. The school also uses RTI effectively to identify and support students who need extra curriculum to bridge lost learning because of multiple moves. Missing days of school, transferring midyear, and differences in curriculum from school to school are common challenges.

Despite all of these challenges, however, the students at Fort Belvoir are academically competitive in all subjects. Moore credits this to the dedication of school staff— a dedication that grew out of the demands and “we will take care of you” attitude forged by 9/11. “The teachers are committed to high standards and caring,” she says. “We might only have these kids for 3 years, but we need to make them the strongest 3 years possible.” She also notes the benefits of being part of FCPS and having access to resources and support from the district. The school reciprocates by serving as a resource for FCPS schools serving military students.

In terms of Moore's role since 9/11, she is much more involved in mental health team planning and school-wide decision-making than prior to 9/11. She views this as a beneficial outcome professionally and also critical to the success of one her primary missions as a school psychologist. “My job is to work with staff and families to help even out life for these children and build their coping and resilience.” Or in post-9/11 terms, to help them develop the skills to always find and thrive in their “new normal.”

Based on an interview with Margaret Moore, a school psychologist at Fort Belvoir Elementary School, Fairfax County Public Schools, VA.

Katherine C. Cowan is NASP Director of Communications.